After Evan Henry’s “Mad Max v Donald Trump” articles I thought it would be apt to revisit an old theme of mine, that of the garden/desert binary in classic westerns. For underneath the controversial rhetoric in the campaign for the Republican nomination is an unmistakable outpouring of longing for the old pioneer spirit, a desire to reinvest in the mythos of the Old West. The Right yearn for a “sheriff” who will be as mercilessly extrajudicial as the outlaws, crushing the corrupting influence of what they see as an effete bureaucratic system.
Genre itself, with the rise of sci-fi arcing across the decline of Western movies, reaches beyond film studies and literature to central issues of philosophy from the classical Greeks onwards. In approaching the specific question of genre and right-wing politics, it is important to remember that the recognition of the Western as an often complex vehicle for American ideology has a rich history in film studies. Critics such as Andre Bazin, Ed Buscombe, Will Wright and Robert Washow read the Western “text” as not just a commercial model for studio production, but as a carrier of timeless mythology.
Similarly, the inhuman antagonist trope of sci-fi has been noted as an example of the universal human fear of the exotic Other. But neither the exuding pseudo-vulva nor the futuristic upgrade of Dorothy’s tin man is my primary concern here. What I want to look at in the case of sci-fi are the “concepts and attitudes” Will Wright designates for Westerns that reside in “the structure of American institutions,” for I believe that sci-fi now clearly excels not in the fantastic future but in the immediate future of a much dreaded estrangement. Movies like Elysium, The Hunger Games, and District 9 use both concepts of class and Otherness in a blend that hints at the continual left-leaning, liberal discontent and cautionary moralising of the industry as a whole.
Of course, the peak of the classic Western coincided with a particular lack of national cynicism in the US, and the success of sci-fi, later bolstered by the rise of CGI, followed the devastating implosion of America self-confidence in the sixties and seventies. Earlier sci-fi, such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Thing From Another World (1951), The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), and Them! (1954), reflected the real-life themes of an infiltrating Other at the height of the Cold War. To quote H. L. Gold, “Few things reveal so sharply as science fiction the wishes, hopes, fears, inner stresses and tensions of an era, or define its limitations with such exactness.”
Despite this clear acknowledgement of ideological weight, early film criticism was fairly dismissive of the genre. A misunderstanding by critics of the important relationship between the human being and technology as represented in fiction might be responsible, but clearly an oversight was made. Annette Kuhn states that “science fiction cinema has never received the degree of critical theoretical attention devoted to other film genres.” This is an interesting omission in the extensive work of genre theorists, especially as the science fiction genre presents us with an interesting parallel with, and in many cases an inversion of, the Western.
The corruption of both classic American mythology and the certain morality that formed the spiritual core of the early Western provides the genre historian with a fundamental nexus at which the two genres connect. Whereas the Western was American (practically by definition, founded as it was in a very specific historical context) the science fiction genre can, at the surface level, appear removed from everyday social reality and therefore soften the blow of cultural criticism. Elements of the Western that had become problematic–the role of America as a military power abroad, or the representation of racial/moral otherness—are liberated from such tangible moral difficulties when transposed to an alien environment.
A dichotomous structure, central to the Western, takes on a new semantic tone when shifted into the postmodern realm; the ideological certainty that we encounter in the classic Western now becomes more ambiguous. The symbolic carriers of wilderness and civilisation are often seen reversed in what they stand for as umbrella terms. Wilderness is not necessarily a thing to be tamed by an imposition of civilisation, though attempts at settlements that are later assaulted by savagery remain an ever present threat to our future humans (done fantastically in Aliens). Nature itself is often the part of the binary to be protected, as in Silent Running, or with our natural environment corrupted, necessitating a push into the final frontier, the wilderness of space, in search of a new home, as in Interstellar. What I will try to establish next is the nature of this frontier in terms of the development of the sci-fi genre, American ideology, and the human condition.